As he peered down from the summit of a ridge in central Greece known as Cynoscephalae, Philip V, King of Macedon, felt that the gods had abandoned him.
He had arrived at the top of the ridge expecting to find his Roman enemies in a confused retreat. Instead, he found two Roman legions advancing up the ridge in battle formation.
He now realised that the battle that would decide whether Macedon would continue to dominate Greece was about to begin – and he only had half of his army with him.
What Philip could not have known at that moment was that the battle fought on that spring day in 197 BC would not only determine Macedon’s position in Greece, it would herald the eventual disappearance of Macedon as an independent state.
Macedonians and Romans
At the start of the second century BC, the area surrounding the Mediterranean Sea was about to enter into an epoch of radical change. The tectonic plates of geopolitical power were about to shift.
The city of Rome, on the Italian peninsula, and the city of Carthage, on the North African coast, had just engaged in a 16-year war for dominance in the western Mediterranean.
Roman determination and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of manpower ultimately wore the Carthaginians down. Scipio Africanus’ victory over Hannibal at Zama in North Africa in 202 BC had made Rome the undisputed mistress of the western Mediterranean.
Far from being war-weary and exhausted after such a struggle, the Romans immediately looked east and sought out another enemy – the Kingdom of Macedon.
Macedon had blazed on to the world stage 140 years earlier when Philip II of Macedon had gained control of Greece by unleashing a new military system that combined cavalry and infantry in a co-ordinated system of attack. His son, Alexander the Great, took this military machine and destroyed the greatest state in the world at that time: the Persian Empire.
After Alexander’s death in 323 BC, his empire split into several kingdoms. One of these so-called ‘successor’ states was the kingdom of Macedon in north-eastern Greece.
As the third century BC entered its final quarter, the Kingdom of Macedon comprised the Macedonian homeland in northern Greece and the adjacent area of Thessaly. In addition, the Macedonians occupied strategic points in areas of Greece that were not officially part of Macedonia. The occupation of these ‘fetters of Greece’ allowed Macedon to exercise influence over the entire region.
At the start of the war between Rome and Carthage in 218 BC, Philip V, who had ascended to the throne in 222 BC, felt the Carthaginians were dealing with a problem that also loomed on his horizon: the rise of an aggressive Roman state now reaching out across the seas.
Accordingly, after Hannibal’s stunning victory over the Romans at Cannae in 216 BC – in which 50,000 or more Romans had been killed – Philip decided that he should leave his position as a spectator and form an active alliance with the Carthaginians.
Unfortunately for the Macedonians, their fleet was destroyed early in the war and the Carthaginians never supplied them with the naval assistance they then needed. The Romans sent warships and troops to the north-west coast of Greece and enlisted the help of Greek states opposed to Macedonian domination. Philip was forced into a defensive stance and was never able to pursue an aggressive policy against the Romans.
Finally, in 205 BC, a truce between Rome and Macedon was negotiated and an uneasy peace commenced between the two nations. Philip’s limited involvement in the war did not appreciably assist the Carthaginians, while at the same time it earned Macedon the eternal enmity of the Romans.
In 200 BC, the Romans got their excuse for breaking the truce with Macedon and settling their score with Philip.
A war had broken out between Ptolemaic Egypt and the Seleucid Syria, both of which were successor states of Alexander’s empire. Macedon sided with the Seleucids and began making threatening gestures towards two smaller states that had sided with the Egyptians: Rhodes and Pergamum. These states appealed to Rome for help.
Rome responded in 200 BC by sending two legions to Greece under the command of Sculpius Galba. These legions mainly comprised veterans of the war with Carthage: many had fought under Scipio Africanus at Zama. The army sent to Greece also included a new addition to the Roman arsenal: the war elephant.
Elephants had been used against the Romans by both King Pyrrhus of Epirus and by Hannibal and other Carthaginian commanders during the wars of the previous century. The behemoths initially had a devastating impact on the Romans, especially their cavalry, but they eventually developed effective methods for dealing with them.
However, the terrifying impact of the animals when first encountered left a lasting impression, and the Romans accepted a gift of 20 elephants from their ally in the war against Carthage, King Masinissa of Numidia. These were duly incorporated into the force sent to confront the Macedonians.
In the spring of 199 BC, a four-pronged attack was organised against Macedonia. Rome’s Greek allies attacked from the north and south, while the Romans headed into Macedonia from the west by land and from the east by sea.
But Galba failed to exploit some minor Roman successes, leaving Philip free to defeat Rome’s Greek allies. Philip then took up a strong position that restricted the Romans to the coast and prevented them from joining forces with the Greeks. He had managed to survive militarily and now had the Romans penned up on the coast. The Greek allies would not act without the Romans, so a stalemate developed.
The situation altered dramatically in 198 BC with the arrival of Titus Quinctius Flamininus in Greece to command the Roman forces. Flamininus was only 29 years old, aggressive, and skilled in diplomacy, and he considered himself the prospective liberator of Greek culture from the Macedonian yoke.
Upon his arrival in Greece, Flamininus met with Philip to discuss terms for peace. Rome demanded nothing less than Macedon’s complete withdrawal from all of Greece outside the Macedonian homeland. Philip stormed out of this meeting and Flamininus immediately embarked on a military offensive.
With a manoeuvre that recalled the Greek defeat at Thermopylae 280 years earlier, Flamininus succeeded in turning the Macedonian position. He was informed of a trail through the mountains that led to the rear of Philip’s army. While part of the Roman force engaged the Macedonians in the front, Roman units moved along the mountain trail and attacked the Macedonians from the rear. The Macedonians fled in disarray, but Philip managed to rally them and led an orderly retreat to the Vale of Tempe in eastern Greece.
The Romans’ Greek allies promptly invaded central Greece, while Flamininus marched his army south with a very specific goal in mind: the destruction of the last vestiges of Macedonian support in Greece.
Flamininus’ diplomatic skill and, most importantly, the intimidating presence of the Roman army, led almost all of Philip’s allies in southern Greece to desert him. This intimidation took its most tangible form when a force of Romans was sent into the Theban assembly to ‘observe’ the voting on the issue of support for Philip.
In the spring of 197 BC, the Romans were joined by 4,000 heavy infantry and 1,000 heavy cavalry from their Greek allies. Flamininus drove this army into Thessaly, and Philip marched south to meet them. The two armies initially camped near the city of Pherae.
Philip, however, began having trouble feeding his men, and the small town of Scotussa to the west and its large grain-stores beckoned. The Macedonians began marching westward, and the Romans followed.
For the next two days, the armies marched on parallel paths, separated by a series of hills and ridges. The dawn of the third day found the armies camped on opposite sides of a range of hills known as Cynoscephalae. This name translates as ‘dog’s head’ and was derived from the unusual shape of the hills.
A heavy rain was falling and the entire area was shrouded in a thick fog. Flamininus, fearing an ambush, ordered the Roman army to remain in camp. Philip’s fear of ambush, however, was outweighed by the hunger of his men. He ordered the Macedonians to continue marching towards Scotussa.
It quickly became apparent to Philip, however, that the fog was so thick that moving his army through it was not simply a calculated risk – it rose to the level of recklessness. Deciding that hunger was preferable to death, Philip ordered the Macedonians to pitch camp.
Philip did make one concession to his men’s hunger. He allowed half his heavy infantry, called ‘phalangites’, to go foraging for food in the area around the camp. To offset the risk inherent in this action, he sent his light infantry and half of the Macedonian cavalry to the top of Cynoscephalae to occupy the ridge and locate the Romans.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the ridge, Flamininus decided to try and find out where the Macedonians were. He duly sent 1,000 light infantry and 300 Roman cavalry up to the top of the ridge on a reconnaissance mission.
In the fog on the top of the ridge, the light infantry elements of both forces ran into each other and a confused fight began. Due to the limited visibility caused by the fog, these light troops could not engage in their normal method of fighting: hurling light javelins and retreating before the enemy could come to blows. Instead, the fighting was confused hand-to-hand combat.
The cavalry units then became involved in the mêlée, and the Macedonians’ superiority in numbers of both infantry and cavalry resulted in the Romans being forced down the ridge. The commander of the reconnaissance force quickly dispatched a messenger to the Roman camp requesting reinforcements.
Upon receiving this request, Flamininus sent an additional 2,000 light infantry and 500 cavalry up the slope. He sent only this small contingent of reinforcements because, due to the fog, he was literally blind regarding events on the ridge. He could not risk his entire force until he knew exactly how many Macedonians were up there and precisely where they were located.
The arrival of the reinforcements swung the fight in the Romans’ favour, and the Macedonians were now driven back. Requests for reinforcements were sent to Philip, and the Macedonian king was now faced with the dilemma that had confronted Flamininus a short time earlier.
Philip’s predicament, however, was further complicated by the fact that half his heavy infantry had still not returned from foraging. He realised that the entire Roman army might be waiting for him in the fog on the ridge.
As the fog cleared away, the Macedonians making a desperate stand on the summit of the ridge became visible. The sight of his beleaguered men on the ridge spurred Philip to action. He could not watch a part of his army be destroyed, especially when he now knew that the only forces involved were Roman light infantry and cavalry.
He quickly dispatched an officer, Athenagros, with 1,500 mercenary heavy infantry and 1,500 heavy cavalry to rescue the forces on the ridge.
These reinforcements sent the Romans careering back down the reverse slope. This rout would have continued all the way back to the Roman camp if it had not been for the timely intervention of the Greek cavalry, who charged into the Macedonian cavalry, breaking their momentum. The battle then developed into a stationary fight on the plain near the Roman camp.
The presence of this large group of Macedonians near the Roman camp convinced Flamininus that the time had come for the legions to go into battle. He led the Romans and the allied troops out and formed them into a battle line, placing his 20 war elephants in front of the right wing. The advance of the legions sent the Macedonians in retreat back up the ridge.
In the Macedonian camp, Philip was receiving glowing reports of the rescue force’s success. Reports of the retreat of the Roman reconnaissance force were exaggerated by the time they reached him into a headlong retreat by the entire Roman army.
Now believing that a decisive victory was within his reach, Philip ordered the 8,000 phalangites in camp and 4,000 medium infantry, called ‘peltasts’, up the ridge. He then instructed a court official, Nicanor, to form up the rest of the phalangites, who were now arriving back in camp, and follow him as quickly as possible.
Any illusions Philip held regarding the status of the Roman army were quickly dispelled when he reached the crest of the ridge. He arrived just in time to see his troops begin retreating up the ridge in the face of the advance of the Romans.
Realising that an attempted retreat with the Romans advancing in battle formation towards him would certainly result in disaster, Philip decided that the time had come to face the Romans in a pitched battle to decide the fate of Macedon.
He rallied his cavalry and other retreating troops as they reached the top of the ridge and positioned them on the far right of his formation. He placed his peltasts next to those troops and then formed up the phalangites to the left of the peltasts.
Philip then ordered the phalangites and the peltasts to form a double-depth formation. This resulted in a phalangite formation 32-men deep and a peltast formation 16-men deep. With this mass formation, Philip hoped to overwhelm the Roman left wing, which was advancing up the ridge. His plan almost worked.
When he saw the Macedonians forming on the ridge, Flamininus ordered his left wing to advance up the ridge and attack. He ordered the right wing to hold its position on the plain just below the ridge. He could see that the entire Macedonian army was not deployed on the ridge, and he would not commit his entire army until he knew where the rest of the Macedonians were.
The Macedonian onslaught
As the 8,000 Macedonian phalangites and 4,000 peltasts advanced down the ridge, the 6,000 heavy infantrymen of the Roman left wing advanced to meet them. As these two forces collided, the Romans began being driven down the ridge. This is in no way surprising: the Macedonians had twice the numbers and were attacking downhill.
The differences in formation and weaponry also gave the Macedonians an advantage. Two phalangites occupied the same amount of space across the front of the battle line as a single Roman. The 16-18 foot length of the Macedonian spear, called the sarissa, also allowed the spear points of the first five ranks to project beyond the formation. When these two factors were combined, it resulted in each legionary facing ten spear-points.
Some legionaries tried to hack their way through the five successive pairs of spear-points, while others tried to push against the spear-points that stuck in their shields.
The latter method was certainly an uneven contest, as the strength and weight of one Roman was pitted against the strength and weight of at least two Macedonians. The mismatch became still greater when phalangites in subsequent ranks leant against the man in front of him, putting even more pressure on the solitary legionary trying to oppose this ‘push of pike’.
Regardless of the method used, none of the legionaries on the Roman left wing were very successful. As this disaster was befalling the Roman left, the rest of the Macedonian phalangites began arriving piecemeal on the top of the ridge.
Upon seeing the Macedonians arriving in this disorganised fashion, Flamininus ordered the Roman right wing to attack. With the war elephants leading the way, the Roman legionaries and their Italian allies, along with 4,000 Greek infantry, charged up the ridge.
The Roman counter-attack
If the phalangites at the top of the ridge had been drawn up in battle formation, the war elephants would have been useless: elephants could not charge rows of spear-points.
However, the Macedonians on the ridge were still in a column of march, and large numbers were still struggling up the ridge. The war elephants crashed into this disorganised mass and scattered the Macedonians. They fled back down the hill with the elephants and Romans right on their heels.
It was at this moment in the battle, with the right wings of both armies victorious, that the inherent superiority of the Roman battle formation – consisting of 120-man tactical units (called ‘maniples’) – asserted itself over the ponderous mass of the Macedonian phalanx.
The right wings of the two armies had passed each other, and this resulted in the rear of both formations being exposed to possible enemy attack. A Roman officer, whose name has been lost to us, looked across the ridge and realised that the Roman formation allowed him to take advantage of this opportunity.
He immediately ordered 20 maniples from the victorious Roman legion on the right to follow him across the ridge. These troops marched quickly across the ridge and fell on the left flank and rear of the Macedonian right.
The Macedonians had no way to deal with this development. They were not trained to divide the formation, with some of the troops turning to face the rear. The Macedonian phalangites could only move and fight in one direction – forward.
The attack from the rear had also allowed the Romans to get into close-quarters with the Macedonians without having to fight their way through a thicket of spear-points. The Macedonians were immediately within reach of the Romans’ swords, and they were quickly cut down.
The phalanx disintegrates
The Macedonian formation began to disintegrate immediately. Some phalangites were killed were they stood, while others dropped their sarissas and fled. Others pointed their sarissas straight up in the air – a signal of surrender. Unfortunately, the Romans did not realise what this meant, and the slaughter continued. Only the intervention of Flamininus prevented a wholesale slaughter of the Macedonians.
Philip, with a small group of his cavalry, watched the destruction of his army from the summit of the ridge. When he saw that the situation was hopeless, he fled with his escort back into Macedonia.
At Cynoscephalae, 8,000 of his men had been killed, while 5,000 had been captured. The Romans had lost only 750 men.
Philip burnt his royal archives to prevent Roman discovery of damaging diplomatic information, and sent envoys to Flamininus requesting peace terms. Philip knew his domination of Greece was over.
The Roman terms of surrender were harsh, but could certainly have been worse: a complete withdrawal from all of Greece outside the Macedonian homeland, the surrender of the Macedonian fleet, and payment of a large war-indemnity. Philip had no other choice but to accept these terms. The instrument of his power – his once-mighty army – had been destroyed.
Philip ruled until 179 BC. His end was an unhappy one. The previous year he had ordered the execution of his son Demetrius, based on false charges of treason brought by Demetrius’ half-brother Perseus. Philip soon realised he had killed his son on the basis of lies, and it is said that he died of a broken heart.
Perseus became king, and eight years into his reign a final war with the Romans began. Perseus’ army was crushed at the Battle of Pydna in 168 BC, and the land of Macedonia was later annexed as a Roman province.
Macedonia, the homeland of Alexander the Great and at one time the most powerful state in the world, simply ceased to exist. Cynoscephalae was both the first and most important step in that journey to extinction. •
Brian M English is a litigation attorney from New Jersey, where he resides with his wife and three children. He is a graduate of Rutgers University and Notre Dame Law School. He has studied ancient and medieval warfare since childhood.